Romancing the Ranch

When two 1970s city slickers try their luck at ranching in the great American West, they earn a newfound respect for farm life—and some very amused neighbors.

Romancing the Ranch

My move from Princeton, N.J., to Denver, Colo., after college was a quest for a better work-life balance than my dad ever had. He was a lifelong commuter from Princeton, mostly to New York. At best, his round trip was three hours, adding up to fifteen hours a week, or sixty hours per month in transit. I resolved to find something different.

After graduating from college I made haste to Denver and before long had a job at the city’s second-largest bank. It was a good job with great co-workers, even if the pay was largely in the form of great weather and nearby mountains rather than cash. A couple of my co-workers at the bank, about ten years my senior, had had success investing in ranch properties. Their first buy was small but well-timed. They were soon able to sell it for a big profit, reinvesting immediately in a larger place. They were on their third iteration when I met them. Their business plan involved buying 450-pound steers in the spring and pasturing them on their ranch, ideally selling them as 700-pounders in the fall. Labor? Simple: recruit subordinates at the bank to moonlight at the ranch, teach them the bare rudiments, feed them well and pay them nothing. I had watched more than my share of cowboy shows as a kid, and loved the farm work I did many summers growing up in rural Princeton. I was perfect for them. I signed up and spent many summer weekends, and even entire vacations, repairing fences, irrigating meadows, moving cattle from pasture to pasture, and generally channeling my inner Marlboro man.

When I became engaged, my fiancée, Libby, enjoyed the ranching experience as much as I did. We resolved to invest in a mountain property that we could enjoy while it hopefully increased in value. A condo in Vail would have been an easier choice, but when we found Flat Tops Ranch, buying it was a no-brainer. At an altitude of 9,000 feet, its 640 acres had snowcapped mountain views, a historic ranch house, all the requisite outbuildings and corrals. And so we went from working on a ranch to owning one. We continued working in Denver and ran the ranch on weekends and vacations. We had no year-round help at Flat Tops. Like our mentors, we bought calves in the spring and sold them to feedlots in the fall. The winter snow at 9,000 feet was usually chest-deep, so we abandoned the ranch for the winters.

Lib and I owned the ranch together for twenty-five years before divorcing. Our ranching days were among the happiest of our family’s lives. Certainly it is sad to realize that we will never return to those “glorious days of yesteryear.” The West has of course changed greatly, yet a surprising number of yesterday’s practices and traditions stubbornly refuse to die. The tales that follow were put down at the request of our youngest son, who wanted each family member to write down our memories before they faded away.

The Ditch Boss

Greenhorns that we were when we got our ranch, Libby and I (mainly I) were sources of endless amusement for our neighbors. A case in point was one day when I was attempting to drive a seven-foot steel fencepost into the ground near our lane. The sledgehammer I was using was adequate once I got the posts started in the ground, but it was hard getting them started. The best (least worst, really) method I had come up with was to lean the post against the back of my shoulder and then tap it increasingly hard in a backward, over-the-shoulder swing until it would stand on its own. Only then could I turn around and give it a proper whack. This method eventually worked, but it was unsightly. So I wasn’t happy when Slim Lueking’s red-and-white pickup appeared in the lane.

The Flat Tops Ranch. (Photos courtesy Sandy Kirkpatrick)
The Flat Tops Ranch. (Photos courtesy Sandy Kirkpatrick)

Lueking was our ditch rider, or “ditch boss,” as he preferred. The ranch shared an irrigation feeder ditch with about seven other ranches. Slim’s job was to keep the ditch clear of any debris, and also to monitor the division boxes to make sure everyone was getting only their proper allotment of water. Because of the gravity of this last responsibility, Slim would not accept so much as a cup of coffee from those he governed, and in fact would give you a long, penetrating look if you offered one. Slim lived just off our property in a trailer with his wife. They kept in touch with the outside world via CB radio. Slim’s handle was Little Beaver.

“Exactly what in the hell are you doing?” Slim asked. Evidently my method was even more unsightly than I realized.

“Just trying to get this fencepost started,” I answered, realizing too late that he knew exactly what I was trying to do and was asking a rhetorical question.

“Why you young pup,” he replied. “Do you see that pickup?” He pointed to my truck, parked not ten feet away. “Did you ever consider standing in the bed of that pickup? Wouldn’t that be easier?”

Sheepishly I moved toward the pickup to position it for Slim’s eminently better fencepost-starting method. “Slim, can we sort of keep this between us?”

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Little Beaver said.

Not more than two hours later, I went down to The Peoples’ Store in the town of Toponas. I noticed that conversation sort of stopped as I entered the store, but everyone seemed to be smiling.

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“What’s funny?” I asked the lady at the checkout.

“Gotten started with your fencing yet this year?” she asked.

Branding Season

One of the first events in the annual cycle of cattle ranching is branding. To “tenderfeet,” branding is one of the most romantic rituals of ranching, so it wasn’t hard for Libby and me to pull together three couples from Denver to help brand our steers at Bill Loring’s ranch in Silt, Colorado, in March 1976. Libby and I were barely more than tenderfeet ourselves, but we did have the advantage of having branded ninety-three heifers at our ranch the year before.

We gathered on Friday night at the Hotel Colorado in Glenwood Springs. Under daguerreotypes of Teddy Roosevelt’s visits to the hotel, we ate chicken-fried steaks, danced the two-step, and discussed what was going to happen the next day.

Branding yearlings like ours is a completely different operation than the one involving calves, which is usually what’s depicted in cowboy movies. Calves are only a few months old and weigh perhaps 120 pounds. Roping and then “flanking” them—lifting them with both hands and one thigh, dropping them on their sides, and kneeling on their necks while another cowboy applies a brand—is hard work, but it is possible for a mortal to do.

Our 450-pound yearlings were another matter. “Strong as an ox” is not a random simile. These wild and feisty critters need to be driven into a cattle squeeze and branded while they are upright but immobilized by the squeeze.

Saturday dawned to light snow—borderline conditions for branding. If the hair is wet all the way to the yearling’s skin, the brand will not take. If it’s wet part of the way to the skin, the only inconvenience is that the smell of the burning hair is even worse than when it’s dry, if that is possible. This day we were able to proceed.

Loring’s cowboy had already gathered our cattle into a pen before we arrived. In fact, they had been there long enough that, between the snowfall and their manure and urine on the bare dirt of the pen, there was already a rich pudding of fragrant mud about ankle deep.

Our brand was a reverse S and a quarter-circle reverse L (for Sandy and Libby). We fired up the oven to heat the branding irons and began dividing up the work. There was the actual application of the brand: This was not a sought-after task because of the pain inflicted, but a volunteer was found. That person did double duty, as he also had to drop the gate at the back of the squeeze to prevent the steer from backing out. Someone else had to pull the lever to tighten the squeeze to hold the steer still. That’s not so hard, but that person also had to inject the growth hormone, a slow-release capsule, in the ear. This job was not popular because it seemed even in those days to be messing with Mother Nature. Again, a volunteer was found.

Next was the hardest job to fill: cutting off the horns. One-year old yearlings like this have thick, stubby horns about three inches long. They do too much damage, usually inadvertently, to other cattle when crowded in trucks if the horns are left, so they must go. The implements to remove the horns are a crosscut saw like the ones used in miter boxes and a hot branding iron to cauterize the wound. It’s better to fill this job in advance: once your prospect sees the blood spurting out in rhythm with the steer’s heartbeat, it’s often too late.

One last job to be filled: chasing the steers, one at a time, from the pen and into the alley and then down the alley and into the squeeze. Marshall, a very successful investment banker, was the only person left without an assignment. “I’ve lucked out,” he said when he learned his duty.

Marshall was dressed in an L.L. Bean tattersall shirt, wide wale corduroys, and Top-Siders. The Top-Siders were ill-suited for the footing in the pen; in fact, the suction in the, ah, mud kept pulling them off his feet, leaving his next step to be taken with a stocking foot. Nevertheless he persisted, and in a short time he had the first steer in the chute. He followed the steer all the way to the squeeze and then stood for a moment to admire his handiwork. When the white-hot branding iron was applied to the steer’s flank, the steer, surprised and suddenly in great pain, lifted his tail and expelled the contents of his large intestine under great pressure in a stream not unlike that from a garden hose. Somewhere there exists a memorable photo of Marshall: He has just brought the backs of both hands in a cleansing motion down the front of his shirt and trousers, but he hasn’t yet shaken the offending material off his hands.

Meeting Zhin Dee

It was late spring 1975 and we needed a second horse to go along with Shorty. I had been watching the ads in the Sunday papers. Among the seven or eight that caught my eye one week was an ad for Zhin Dee, a registered half-Arab mare, about eight years old, offered for $400. Libby and I went out to a very large pasture in northwest Denver and met Zhin Dee’s owner, a printer who was moving back to Seattle. Zhin Dee had a foal at her side and was skittish as we saddled her for a test ride. As soon as she had a rider, though, she changed. She was responsive and alert, and a marvelously comfortable ride. This was because, we were to learn, she was “short-coupled.” This means she had a pronounced overstep, and would put her rear hoof down several inches in front of the print left by her front foot.

We loved Zhin Dee. The business transaction was completed swiftly and arrangements were made to leave Zhin Dee for a few weeks until the weather would permit us to get in to the ranch. The foal was offered as a throw-in. To my everlasting regret, I declined.

On the appointed pickup day, I arrived at the pasture with a rented trailer. As the seller had advertised, Zhin Dee walked into the trailer with virtually no effort. A rope tied to the trailer door and looped around her rump had the desired effect the moment it grazed her skin. I tied her lead rope loosely to the front of the trailer stall and closed the door behind her.

The drive back to the ranch was uneventful. I was taking it slowly with my precious cargo, and it was late afternoon by the time I got to the ranch. This was one of the first trips to the ranch of the year. I had gone up the week before to make sure the fence was good around one horse pasture; the rest of the fences had not been touched.

I stopped the truck between the back door of the ranch house and the gate into the horse corral. I thought the hard work was done. Just take Zhin Dee out of the trailer, lead her into the horse corral, let her chill out for a while, and take her down to the secured pasture.

Thoughtlessly, I unhooked the lead rope from the halter before opening the back door. As she stepped out, I was going to lead her by the halter into the corral.

When I opened the door behind her, as often happens, Zhin Dee stood still for a moment. Then she cautiously stepped back onto—nothing. Thin air, even only about twelve inches of it before she touched ground, startled her. Part in, part out, the sound of her hooves slipping around in the wet manure on the trailer floor was a panicky sound. By the time she was completely out of the trailer she was already rearing. Then she was off at a dead run west into the woods. I could hear her crashing through the brush for a while, and then it was silent as she went out of earshot.

I considered the situation, so promising only seconds ago. The ranch was completely new to her. She was probably experiencing separation anxiety because of the absence of her foal. The fences were in disrepair after a long winter and would not hold a horse whose only thought was to get away. The ranch was new to us, too—I didn’t know my way around much better than she did. In the direction she was headed, there were no occupied ranches between us and the Flat Tops wilderness area. Even if there had been, I hadn’t noted her markings or brand well enough to describe her in any detail.

As I stood there trying to come up with a plan, any plan, I heard twigs and branches cracking again. There was Zhin Dee at the edge of the trees. How could I possibly get close enough to grab the halter without spooking her?

Incredibly, she began cantering in my direction. As I watched in increasing amazement, she cantered up to me and did a hard stop, putting her head right between my outstretched hands.

Telephone Day

For the first five years or so that we had the ranch, we were on a party line with six other ranches. Because we were deemed by Mountain Bell to be too sparsely populated for phone service, the ranchers themselves built a phone “company.” Maintaining the primitive facilities was part of life on Five Pines Mesa.

Our party telephone line included, as I remember, the Klumkers (senior and junior), Ivan and Birdie Decker, Punch Hughes and his father, and the Harper place. Theoretically, there was phone etiquette: When you would pick up the phone and the line was already in use, you were supposed to put it back in its cradle promptly. This rule was usually honored in the breach, and in reality the party line was an effective way to get news around the neighborhood quickly (a practical joker could have pulled off some great hoaxes). People became skilled in circumlocution where private matters were involved.

The distance between the Antlers Cafe in the town of Yampa, where the line joined Mountain Bell, and the other end (the Harper place) was perhaps ten miles, and the terrain was varied. Some places were open sage pasture, some of it flat, some steeply up-and-down. Some was heavily treed, as the north side of our ranch was. If we wanted good reception, or any reception, it was up to us to maintain the line. For emergencies, for convenience, or simply to keep track of the neighbors, everyone was interested in having a working system. Nature, however, militated against that and the ancient system was easy prey, whether from high winds whipping through the open areas, trees falling on the line in the forests, or lightning strikes.

For most of a typical year, when an outage occurred each rancher would inspect on horseback the part of the line that ran through his place and effect a repair if necessary. If that system didn’t work, people would venture on to neighboring ranches until the problem was located. Often the problem was tree branches leaning against the line, which created an unbearably loud hum in the connection. Sometimes a phone pole was down (many were starting to rot at ground level). Occasionally the line was completely broken, as when a big tree would fall directly across it. Or lightning could cause the box on the outside of your house to short out. The repairs at these times were Band-Aids. On your horse you couldn’t carry more than a hammer, a few nails and maybe a small handsaw. You did the best your skills and equipment would permit.

Once a year, there was phone day. Each ranch was supposed to contribute at least one person. Most were on horseback, but one came with a pickup, spare wire and insulators, shovels, post-hole diggers (the rancher’s Ph.D.), axes, chain saws, and other tools. At one time we supposedly had proper phone repair equipment, stored at the Harper place, but it had disappeared. Each year there was discussion as to who had absconded with it. The speculation, which included the culprit, his motivation, and the current whereabouts of the tools, whiled away many hours of each phone day I attended. From year to year, no one ever seemed to investigate the various theories, so they would be repeated the next year.

On phone day the goal was more durable repairs. Ranchers are versatile, and the phone-day fixes were usually stronger than the original equipment had been. New holes were dug for poles, threatening trees would be eliminated, and proper wire splices were made.

Having the phone line end at the Antlers Cafe, a great cowboy hangout that was featured in Henry Weinhard beer commercials, was propitious. Looking forward to, and savoring, that first beer after a long day almost made phone day fun. Still, when Mountain Bell offered to take over, everyone quickly accepted.

A Welcome Visitor

On the first Sunday in October, 1974, Lib and I awoke before dawn to gather our 117 steers for shipping. That day’s mission was to move them into the corral to await the arrival of the truck that would take them to a feedlot in Denver. As we dressed and drank our coffee and tea, we could see in the day’s first rays of light a heavy white frost on the brown grass in the meadow. A clear, crisp day—just right for the job we had to do. We had dressed warmly, but we still shivered as we brought the horses to the barn, and the bits were cold in our hands as we coaxed Zhin Dee and Soapsuds to accept them.

By the time we arrived among the steers, they were well into their active feeding period of the morning. Every head was down and they tried to ignore us. When we did get too close for their comfort, they would snatch one last mouthful, move a few steps away and resume grazing. Cold weather sometimes made them feisty, but on this day the steers signaled that there would be no trouble.

It’s hard to describe my feelings on that morning. Satisfaction that our decision to get the ranch had been right, that it could produce such pleasures as a morning like this. Fulfillment that all the tasks involving the cattle were nearly finished with success: buying, branding, fence mending, retrieving strays from neighbors, doctoring. Awe at the beauty of the sunrise, by now well under way. Sheer joy at Zhin Dee’s every response, most of which came a split second before I asked for them.

Enveloped as I was by such feelings, I still became aware of a new presence among us. The coyote’s silver-tinted coat matched the frosty brown grass, but his motion as he trotted out of the woods and down the hill attracted my eyes and Lib’s at about the same time. Across the fifty yards that separated us, we exchanged a look that said, Can you believe the beauty of this moment?

The coyote, ears up and forward and alert to danger, paused every few seconds as he trotted toward us. Still, he didn’t stop for good until he was within one hundred feet. At that point, he sat down calmly and took in the horses, the cattle, and the sunrise. As we started to move off, he got up and loped easily back to the forest.